The Queen’s Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue is a conjoined twin, one of two theatres that were built next to each other by W.G.R. Sprague, an articled clerk for Frank Matcham, the theatre architect. At the other end of the building is the Hick’s Theatre, which changed its name eventually to the Gielgud. The Hick’s opened first in 1907, followed by Queen’s in 1908. The theatre took its title from Queen Alexandra, Edward VII’s wife.
The theatre’s auditorium (Latin for ‘place for hearing’) was built on three levels or balconies: stalls, dress circle and upper circle, effectively two tiers. Its original capacity was close to 2000 seats. It has lost a few and currently it’s around 1000. The dress circle is for the posh people; the expensive seats, so you were supposed to wear formal dress or evening wear. The upper circles are given different names: the loggia (French for level), mezzanine (US), and the highest – the gods, due to the distance from the stage.
Box seats, to the left and right, were also prized, and in Renaissance England, in The Globe, they were the only place you could sit rather than stand. The royal box being the most prestigious. Consequently, you had to buy tickets in advance. Hence the Box Office is where you buy your theatre tickets.
The stalls in the 18th century were known as parterre which is derived from a gardening term, (something I covered in last year’s gardens theme). Imagine the planted seeds of a garden pattern, neatly arranged in rows. House seats, the best seats in the house, provide the best view and were often reserved for family members, agents, and other theatrical VIPs.
The green room where actors waiting for the moment on stage came into use during Elizabethan times. The colour scheme for the Queen’s theatre on construction was white and gold with a green carpet.
Frank Matcham pioneered the unobstructed view in 1882. The Queen’s Theatre used the cantilever method to support the tiers. The upper balcony isn’t supported by distracting pillars but with the use of a rigid beam anchored on either side. When introduced in America from Britain, there was some obvious nervousness about weight, so they performed tests at the newly built Chicago Theatre substituting people with sandbags and distributed the photographs to the public to reassure them.
The Queen’s theatre was lit by electricity. There’s a long history of stage lighting. It’s all about focus, mood, visibility, reveal and composition, and so on. Candles needed frequent trimming or else they dripped wax onto the actors and audience. And they needed relighting. Chandeliers blocked views. Drury Lane and Covent Garden Theatre both fitted a large central chandelier and candle sconces along the walls. Oil lamps using a glass chimney offered a brighter, cleaner light.
Gas lighting started to appear in the early 19th century. The first successful use was at the Lyceum theatre in 1803. Limelight, invented by Thomas Drummond, was especially popular in the 1860s – a gas flame heats a cylinder of quicklime and at a certain temperature, the quicklime begins to incandesce. The illumination could be reflected and directed with lenses. Being in the limelight is also a common expression associated with performing, good or bad.
The Savoy Theatre was the first to acquire electric lighting, swiftly followed by the arrival of footlights at the front, strip and border lights, all of which improved the audience experience.
The original portland stone front of the Queen’s Theatre was badly bombed during the war and eventually rebuilt with a modern façade, while still attached to its twin theatre – the Hicks. After the war it was left derelict for twenty years before being restored.
From 2004 to 2019 it took over from the Palace Theatre the production of Les Miserables, then the theatre was closed again for extensive restoration; it still suffered from the consequences of that bombing.
You won’t find the Queen’s Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. It is still there. It changed its name upon reopening to the Sondheim Theatre in honour of Stephen Sondheim.